Kanchanaburi, Thailand

World War 2 – Thailand

world_war_2_thailand_1World War Two came to Thailand by agreement between the Japanese and the Thai’s – otherwise it was coming by force, but the Thai government in 1942 agreed to allow the Japanese passage and signed an agreement effectively saving it (Thailand) an invasion. This was opposed by many Thai’s including the Thai Attache to the US (Khun Seni Promoj) who refused to deliver his declaration of war to the US. Due to America gaining supremacy in the Pacific with the Battle of Midway etc, Japan was struggling to send supplies back home via sea and to supply it’s forces in it’s ever expanding empire; this included essential supplies to Burma and any future foray into India. The Pacific was increasingly risky for shipping, so there had to be another way.

world_war_2_thailand_2Only several months before on 15 February 1942 – the impregnable fortress Singapore fell – enslaving thousands of allied troops – who began their 3.5 years of occupation. Having secured the Thai tenure, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) compiled the bold plan to use that labour to build a rail link from Ban Pong (near Bangkok) through some of the worst jungle in the world to Burma joining rail services to Moulmein and Ye – giving the IJA the ability to supply their depleted forces. A railway that would end up taking over 100,000 lives – as one author penned, ‘A Life For Every Sleeper’. Over 6,000 British perished, 2,710 Australians, 2,600 Dutch, 400 Americans, and a combination of coolie labourers (Malay, Tamil, Burmese and Chinese etc) who lost great numbers of people. Deaths came to the prisoners from malnutrition, malaria, tropical ulcers, cholera, dysentery and murder.

world_war_2_thailand_3There are two allied war cemeteries in Thailand – Chungkai and Kanchanaburi War Cemeteries (about 80kms NW from Bangkok). Chungkai War Cemetery holds British and Dutch servicemen and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery holds Australian, British and Dutch men. Kanchanaburi has over 7,000 boys buried in it’s war cemeteries across many nations including men who were unable to be identified – and they have plaques referring to them as ‘Known Unto God’, it is the burial ground for the southern aspect of the railway. Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is managed by an Australian – Mr Rod Beattie and recently I interviewed Rod for my new travel guide to WW2 Thailand on his life, the cemetery and other interesting odds and ends. Rod is a busy character who not only manages the largest Allied War Cemetery in Thailand, but is the Director of Research of the Thai-Burma Railway Centre (museum) next door to the war cemetery.

World War 2 ThailandAn Interview with the Curator – Rod Beattie (Curator of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and
Director of Research of the TBRC among other things…)

Q. How did you first hear of the Thai/Burma Railway? In Australia or abroad?

A. Whilst in Australia I knew no more or less than anyone else. I got my first book about the railway as a school prize in 1966. My real knowledge started after moving to Kanchanaburi to work for a Thai company mining sapphires at Bo Phloi.

Q. Have you served in the military? 

A. Yes, six years in the Army Reserve (1969-76).

Q. What is your profession? (OK Jack of All Trades – but what does your CV say?)

A. Jack of all Trades. Three tertiary qualifications. Two in Civil Engineering. One in Gemmology. Trade qualifications as Heavy Plant Operator and Truck Driver. Master gem cutter. I am multi qualified.

Q. Why your passion for the TBR?

A. I don’t know other than a desire to learn more and to help other people.

Q. What year did you get to Kanchanaburi?

A. 1989.

Q. Was it the same year you started as Curator of Kanburi Cemetery?

A. No. It was not until 1994 that I got involved in the railway. 1995 appointed Manager of the War Cemeteries.

Q. How did you get the job?

A. The British Embassy contacted me to ask for help in finding a new Manager. I gave them local advice which they passed on to CWGC. CWGC came back and asked if I was interested in the job. I said ‘Yes’.

Q. What is your relationship with OAWG like? Is it very bureaucratic?

A. Since my contract as Project Manager of the Hellfire Pass Museum Project finished in 1998 I have had no formal relationship with OAWG. Unofficially I work closely with the Manager of the Hellfire Pass Museum.

Q. Do you think political correctness is a thing that has little place in the TBRC or the HFP Museum etc?

A. Absolutely. The truth would be better and more appropriate.

Q. I know you cleared a lot of railway with your wife, how much did you clear and how long did it take?

A. A total of 8 kilometres. Two years. Only 4 and a bit kilometres are now maintained by OAWG as the walking trail.

Q. Were you ever concerned about the tropical diseases etc, that our predecessors suffered, occurring to you whilst working there?

A. Not at all. I was brought up in the Australian bush so felt completely at home in the jungle. The
diseases are still here but in our present state of health we will not be affected provided we use normal health precautions. The son of one of my labourers had a tropical ulcer which was only cured after I put him in Kanchanaburi’s best private hospital.

Q. How is your relationship with exPOWs that visit – there must have been many over the years – who sticks in your mind as the typical bloke you connected with most?

A. Excellent, with those who know me personally. I really can’t pick out any one individual of the very large number. They are almost universally wonderful men. A tiny number use their status as former POWs to their own advantage. The one who I owe the deepest debt is Tom Morris. He was the one person who had the courtesy to discuss with me what was going on in Kanchanaburi three years ago, when I and my plans for the TBRC were the subject of so much bad press. He believed in what I was doing and stood by me – unlike many others who have not met me and simply believed what they read or heard.

Q. What was Weary Dunlop like when he was in town?

A. I never met Weary.

Q. What about Japanese? Have you had many dealings with them visiting over the years?

A. Yes, many visit Kanchanaburi. Most know nothing of the true story. As an historian I put aside my personal feelings in an attempt to get the Japanese side of the story. It is important that a balanced story be recorded for historical purposes. I have a close relationship with a senior Japanese Engineer and other Japanese interested in the story being told accurately.

Q. A little birdie tells me that you may have had an altercation with some ‘characters’ in the cemetery playing up and being disrespectful? What happened – who were they and why did they make it out alive?

A. Only a minor one, two or three. I am very mindful of the position I hold and only extremely distasteful behaviour will provoke me. Like people running around climbing trees. Like a bus load of tourists using the hedge as a toilet. Like some ignorant people sitting on headstones.

Q. How long are you going to stay in Thailand? Will you ever leave?

A. Totally dependent on the future education of my three little girls. Secondary education in Kanchanaburi is not good so I may move back to Australia for this.

Q. The TBRC has been a long time coming. Has other museums like JEATH even Hellfire Pass (HFP) Museum been annoyed at this new one or have they been supportive.

A. Terrified would probably be a better description. I have a close relationship with the Manager of the HFP Museum so we actively promote each other. I offered a space in my TBRC to OWAG for a HFP display and this offer was accepted.

Q. What is your project at Chungkai doing? What have you unearthed?

A. A huge ‘dig’. Hundreds of items. Personal possessions, camp items, tools, numerous medicine bottles, the actual fireplaces etc.

Q. What do you miss about Australia? (Rugby, AFL, Fish’n’Chips, Meat Pies?)

A. The ease of travelling and going on holidays. Packing up the car, trailer and boat and heading off in any direction. Camping by a western stream and fishing for yellow belly. Pulling into a caravan park anywhere on the coast and putting the tinnie in the water. Cleanliness and order of daily life. But there are also many things I don’t miss.

Q. Have royalty shown interest before in the Thai-Burma Railway and its history etc?

A. Very little interest shown by any Thais. Khun Kanit is an exception. No Thai royal visit in the offering. We have just had a visit by the Queen of the Netherlands.
Kanchanaburi is about a two-three hour trip by bus from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal, cost 79 baht one way. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is located on Sangchuto Road about 15 minutes walk from the bus terminal. The Thai-Burma Railway Centre is located in a street that overlooks the cemetery – a two storey building with the upper storey overlooking parts of the war cemetery, it costs 60 baht to enter.

The title of my travel guide is ‘A Different Brand Of English’ and is available at www.poseidonbooks.com/a_different_brand_of_english.htm (ISBN: 1-9208-8490-4) An A5 Paperback with 367 pages including over 150 photographs of Singapore and Thailand. This comprehensive travel guide has an emphasis on WW2 Singapore and Thailand. It guides the traveler around Kranji, Chungkai and Kanchanaburi War Cemeteries and includes many graves of war time luminaries to visit with next of kin permission and in some cases includes photographs of the deceased all with information on how and where they died etc. It guides the traveler to cuttings, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Hellfire Pass, POW Camps, Changi Prison etc.

The travel guidebook also consists of Ex Prisoner of War (POW) interviews of men who toiled on the Thai-Burma Railway & includes an interview with the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and Museum Director/Curator. Along with never published before prison camp reports marked SECRET and released before the end of the war for Australian Prison Camp Investigators. The Australian Prime Minister provided comments exclusively for the book about his travel in and around Hellfire Pass. Has over 150 photographs from many and varied luminaries including many of George Aspinall’s war time collection, exclusive pictures of the Queen of Holland in the Thai War Museum, contemporary shots of Singapore and Thailand’s memorials, plaques and places of interest, including Australian War Memorial photographs and maps etc.

The guidebook also discusses the main touristy attractions in both countries including Raffles Hotel, Singapore Cricket Club, Merlion, Bangkok Palace, Bangkok Prison, Patpong Market to Phuket etc. It has a recommended restaurant guide, a hotel stay guide and tips and travel advice down to scams to avoid with up to date foreign office warnings.

This type of book on this combined issue has never been written before and it goes where no guidebook has gone before on this subject. The journey the book takes is one of wonder, excitement, sadness and reflection.

Andrew Mason

Australia

Why the River Kwai?

Why the River Kwai. A sense of joy filled my head as we neared Kanchanaburi some three hours from Bangkok. As a young boy I viewed a movie and the memory has never left. While I was excited to see the famous bridge and associated attractions there was a small let down, as the bridge of my childhood resembled little to the real thing, however I was soon overwhelmed by the beauty and tranquility of the area.

My friends and I stayed at a resort of floating huts on the river about 40 kilometers from Kanchanaburi in a town called Sai Yok. We negotiated the price, which included all meals, but alcohol was extra. We were left alone all day to do our own thing, and at meal time the owner returned and prepared the food. The menu choice was good and we were able to have three different dishes all of course with rice.

The experience was without doubt the best that I have had in Thailand. We stayed for 5 nights, initially by ourselves but after the first day others arrived, we all sang and drank and had a great time checking out the local attractions and markets for souvenirs. Tourist operators from Bangkok have daily trips or you can have a few days with accommodation, its up to you.

The whole area is fantastic, —- don’t think that the bridge, and museums are the only things of interest. There are several waterfalls, golfcourses, caves, fishing, rafting, elephants, and wild life parks, all within a short distance.

Do yourself a favor and stay a while and feel the beauty of Thailand, you will never forget the experience.

Cheers

Garry

A Bridge Not So Far

kanchanaburi_1
Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi

Sometimes, it’s a nice to get away from the pace of it all. And as far as Bangkok is concerned, an early morning start and 3.5 hrs to spare will get you away to one of my favourite chill out provinces, Kanchanaburi. If the name rings a bell, then yes you’re right, it is the place where that “old bridge” was built over the River Kwai, but that’s another story.

There are many sides to Kanchanaburi, whether it is from the 24 hr techno raves on the infinite number of party river barges (locally known as “Bpear Tech” if you’re up for hitching a ride), to swimming beneath beautiful waterfalls, white water rafting, nature treks, cave exploring, slow river cruises and even a treasure hunt! Yes, that’s right, a hunt for the legendry missing Thai gold that was, as the local tale goes, stolen by the fleeing Japanese army and hidden somewhere deep among the many caverns of Kanchanaburi. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out! 

But I’ve banged my head too many times on low caves (alcohol not required) and been kamikazed enough by spaced out radar deficient bats (yes be, warned) that this time I headed directly for some much needed R&R at Kasem Island Resort upon a small island in the centre of the River Kwai.

Kanchanaburi is 130 Km west of Bangkok and is very easy to get to. You’ll find mini buses leaving from KSR daily (3.5 hrs journey-rates vary), there’s a regular a/c bus service from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal (3.5 hrs journey-approx 65 baht one way) located not far from KSR just over the Pinklao Bridge or like me, you can catch the 7:30 am train from Bangkok Noi Station, Thonburi (4 hrs journey). I prefer any one of the 3 morning trains as there’s plenty of room to chill, better scenery and the real reason… a regular supply of fresh Thai food sold by the train hopping vendors!

After a relaxed 4 hr journey of food, smiles and laughter (ice cold beer for sale makes a regular appearance between stations) I arrived in Kanchanaburi Town. Once you’re outside the train station (and nearby bus station) if you haven’t yet booked a place to stay, its ok, as there are plenty of small trucks and minivans that will take you directly to a number of small hotels/guest houses and resorts around town. I got me a local pick-up taxi down to the Chukadon Pier by the river with just one quick pit-stop along the way to stock up with supplies (laughing liquid and the usual munchies) as the resort has no worries about bringing your own! (Nice one).

 Between the mainland and the island Kasem Resort runs its own ferry barge service every half hour back and forth for free, so don’t worry you’re never stranded. Accommodation ranges from cool twin fan huts with bathroom up to a/c suites. My hut, actually afloat, was 800 Baht per night including a great Thai/Western buffet dinner and breakfast. There are only about 25 rooms/suites or so in total, so there’s no hustle or bustle day or night. The small pool’s there for a quick dip (no gold medals to be won) and numerous tree shaded chill out areas in which to crack open a few as the sun sets with new friends (buckets of ice upon request) or simply to finally finish off that novel you’ve had since the airport!

For the adventurous among you, the resort can organize you a long tail speed boat (approx 600 baht-well worth it!) for you to zip up and down the River Kwai for hours avoiding or joining the party mad barge ravers, visiting the Buddhist caves, (hard work, trust me), the War Cemetery (somber), Bridge Over The River Kwai (always busy, but watch out for the Eastern Orient Express as the railway line is still active), War Museum, and back to the island. But, give the riverside restaurant by Chukadon Pier a go for lunch as the menu is excellent, the food is great and the price is spot on!

As for the waterfalls, kayaking, river rafting and walkabout with elephants, well as I said, I just came for one day of R&R, but if you’ve got time, then give yourself and Kanchanaburi a few well deserved days to either recharge your batteries like me or just party on down the river! Enjoy.

And remember…

 Keepitreal

Seeing Kanchanaburi through the Eye of the Tiger

Tiger Temple Kanchanaburi
Tiger Temple Kanchanaburi
Tiger Temple Kanchanaburi

Animal-lovers, take note. If you’re looking to see exotic wildlife on your Thailand trip, there are no shortage of opportunities on the tourist circuit. But if zoos seem to simulated and the odds of a jungle-trek encounter seem uncertain (and dangerous!), a new middle ground exists. In the growing trend of tourist-friendly wildlife sanctuaries, visitors can witness Thailand’s most exotic creatures in a safe, unexploitative manner. Even the tiger, the most dangerous and regal of Thailand’s wildlife, can be observed and admired in this setting. Kanchanaburi’s Wat Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, widely known as the “tiger temple,” allow tourists to act out their childhood Jungle Book fantasies by getting up-close and huggy with a tame pack of Indo-Chinese tigers.

This temple was converted into a tiger sanctuary in 1999, as a home for tigers who have been rescued from poachers in the jungles west of Kanchanaburi. Around the Thai-Burmese borders, these beautiful animals are coveted by hunters, which can leave orphaned cubs fending for themselves in the jungle. Managed by a team of monks and volunteers (both Thai and western), the Tiger temple provides a protected habitat for these coveted animals. The Abbot Pra Acharn Phusit Khantitharo, who founded the sanctuary, is in constant interaction with the tigers.

The grounds themselves are a dusty 30-minute drive from downtown Kanchanaburi. With the admission fee of 300 baht (and a waiver to be signed at the gate; a standard procedure when tiger-touching is involved) visitors are led through the wide, sparse grounds. While visitors may be stumped in a search for a real temple (the word seems to be synonymous with “sanctuary” in this case), there’s no shortage of awe-inducing tigers.

The tigers are taken to a quarry each day to enjoy the sun, stretch their legs, and bathe in the small pool. It is here that tourists can watch the tigers interact with each other. Separated only by a thin rope, volunteer will guide visitors close to the tigers and invite them to pet the animals and pose for photos. The presence of the volunteers is valuable, as tourists can get nervous in such proximity to the tigers. The temple staff with explain that the tigers are raised from infancy by the monks, and so they adapt to the presence of humans and the daily routine of being approached by temple visitors. It is true that in this unique environment, the tigers seem genuinely unfazed by human company. These nocturnal animals are restful in the quarry, often sleepy or sleeping, while the head monk sits with them. The tigers will often be slow to acknowledge the people around them, even as they’re being approached and touched.

Tourists are forever in dispute about the tigers’ tame demeanor, which seems so contrary to their natural instincts. The temple staff will assure visitors over and over that the tigers are pacified by the calming influence of the Buddhist monks, instilled in them since they were cubs. Still, animal-conscious visitors will argue that the tigers must be sedated by more than just meditative power, and are in fact fed drugs which render them sluggish and passive.

Despite these speculations, it is clear from the temple environment that the animals are well-fed and healthy. Visitors to the temple receive a souvenir booklet which profiles each of the 17 tigers and cubs in the tiger temple family, explaining the animal’s birthday, the origins of its name, and a lovingly-written description of its personality. The temple staff maintain the ultimate goal of expanding the temple grounds and facilities into a 12-acre area where tigers can live in a safe version of their own habitat, free from cages. Details of the “New Home for Tigers” project can be found on the temple’s website, http://www.tigertemple.org/Eng/index.php, a site which also cites quotations from the Abbot on his compassion and respect for animals.

In addition to tigers, this temple hosts a family of boars, goats, birds and other creatures. The monks exercise a policy to feed all hungry beings who approach them, animal or human. Volunteering opportunities are available for English-speakers with a background in biology or animal care and a respect for the Buddhist ethics exercised at the temple. Please contact the temple for more information.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Erawan Waterfall, Erawan National Park

Erawan Waterfall, Erawan National Park
Erawan Waterfall, Erawan National Park
Erawan Waterfall, Erawan National Park
Erawan Waterfall, Erawan National Park

It’s a beautiful sunny day and I have decided to hire a motorbike to drive the 65 kilometres from Kanchanaburi to the enchanting Erawan National Park in the west of Thailand, near the Burmese border.

The journey takes me just over an hour and is mostly flat, before leading me up a winding tree-lined hill. On the way up the hill I stop to buy petrol from a small stand and get talking to the owner, a friendly robust woman called Pim.

Pim laughs when she hears that I intend to climb to the top of Erawan Waterfall, the majestic seven-tiered fall that is about 1,500 meters high. “You cannot do it,” Pim grins – “you are much too fat!”

I thank Pim for her kind words and continue my journey, noticing how empty the road is and how beautiful the scenery. Before long I have reached the park and leave my bike in the car park.

As I walk through the forest to the first level of the waterfall, I pass by a guide giving instructions to a group of brightly-clad tourists. “Remember, the monkeys like to bite. Last week a monkey bit of someone’s hand!” the guide grinned at the look of alarm at the tourist’s face. “No, I am joking. But take care.”

I pass the group and reach the first level, which is stunningly beautiful. Although only a shallow fall, the water is clear and inviting and the forest backdrop is very pretty. Several people are already at this level, splashing in the water, balancing on logs or eating picnics.

I continue up a flight of steps to the second level, which features a deep pool filled with cool water. It is a long climb up to the third level, and I am hot and breathless by the end of it. I remember Pim’s words and wonder if I will make it to the top.

The fall at level three is much larger and extremely pretty. This seems like a good place to swim and its not long before I’m splashing about in the crystal clear aquamarine water. But I am not alone. After a few seconds I am attacked by a school of fish, who are intent on eating my skin. Luckily, these fish are only about an inch long and simply want to feast on my dead skin cells, so I’m safe enough. Still, the fish are persistent ands swimming with them is like being struck by a series of minor electric shocks.

Erawan falls is situated in Erawan National Park, which covers 550 sq kms and receives around 60,000 visitors each year. The falls are named after Erawan, the three-headed elephant of Hindu faith as the falling water is said to resemble the mighty beast.

After sitting sunbathing on some rocks to dry off, I embark on the challenging climb up ton level five. Sweat is pouring off me as I struggle to climb the steep hill. Luckily, there is a lookout point halfway up and I take the opportunity to rest as I enjoy the spectacular view across the lush landscape.

My spirits are lifted as I reach level five and am greeted by the sweet sounds of singing, music and laughter. A group of Thai teenagers have somehow carried their guitars up the mountain, and I rest for a while enjoying the way the light blends with the sounds of the birds and the breeze in the trees.

The climb to level six is equally challenging, but once there I am greeted by the sight of a large waterfall and deep pool. This level is completely deserted, and I welcome the opportunity to wade in the waters once more.

After I have rested, it is time to ascend to the seventh and final level. I search in vain for a pathway, finally realising that to reach the top I must climb the steep rock face to the left of the fall. Expecting to stumble at any moment I eventually make it to the top, cross a stream and somehow manage to climb the last 100 metres to the summit.

Hot, sweaty and breathless, I stand and look around. To my surprise I am actually above the level of the jungle and can see for miles in every direction, where varying shades of green mix with bursts of bright colour and the sparkling blue of distant rivers.

Finally, it is time to descend from my lofty perch. On the way back down I am surprised by a group of monkeys, who climb past me down the rocky path without even giving me a second glance. I look jealously at the effortless way they scamper down the mountainside, feeling slow and heavy in comparison.

Finally I am at the bottom and climb aboard my waiting motorbike. On the way back I stop to tell Pim about my adventure. The friendly woman looks at me in surprise. “Maybe you are like an elephant,” she tells me. “They look slow but are very powerful.” I grin at Pim, realising that this is as close to a compliment as I am ever going to get.

About the author:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!